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Dawn and Hawkes prepare to make a splash in 2016.EXPAND
Dawn and Hawkes prepare to make a splash in 2016.
Photo courtesy of Dawn and Hawkes

Top Ten Folk Artists to Watch in 2016

While the perpetual cynics hem and haw that great Americana music is in scarce quantity these days, 2015 proved such assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. Several new artists emerged from a variety of stylistic realms, proving emphatically that there remains a wellspring of excellent contemporary folk, country, soul, and Americana performers just waiting in the wings. Here then, are our picks for those who warrant be watched in the year ahead.

10. Dawn and Hawkes
After a pleasing but largely overlooked debut, 2012's Golden Heart EP, Dawn and Hawkes returned in 2015 with the heart-melting Yours and Mine. Partners both in music and love, Miranda Dawn and Chris Hawkes purvey a soft strum and gilded sentiments, layering their acoustic guitars beneath burnished harmonies. Dawn, a finalist for the New Folk Songwriting Competition at the 2012 Kerrville Folk Festival, made her national bow with Hawkes on NBC's The Voice in 2014, leading judge Adam Levine to trumpet their take on the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face” as his “favorite performance on the show... ever.” From there, things quickly escalated. They achieved a high ranking on the folk music charts, a string of prestigious support gigs, and regular appearances on the national festival circuit.

9. David Myles
David Myles has built a sizable following north of our borders, but he's yet to share his talents with a wider Stateside audience. The songwriter has already penned several albums and received practically every award there is to win (including a Juno and various accolades accumulated in his native Nova Scotia) and sounds like a cross between James Taylor and Michael Buble, thanks to a low-key, unassuming style that ingratiates him from the first notes forward. While much has been made of the fact that Myles easily leaps from rock to jazz, Latin music and hip-hop to purely country croons, his recent album, So Far — his first to be released in the United States — parlays a pure Americana/folk feel. With tastes running from Don Gibson and Roger Miller to Frank Ocean, Aretha Franklin, and Smokey Robinson, Myles' So Far was an apt title considering the fact that it not only sums up his strengths but also bodes the promise of what’s to come.

8. Nigel Hall
There aren’t too many artists genuinely committed to old-school soul these days, what with the proliferation of rap, hip-hop, and various mutations that deviate from the form. That made Hall’s initial bow, Ladies & Gentlemen... Nigel Hall, an auspicious debut for any number of reasons, not the least of which is found in the fact that Hall himself emerges fully formed, a talented singer with the skills and chops that attest to his clear commitment to form. It’s not enough that he possess the vocal chops and keyboard skills needed to meet the standard, but the fact that he’s so adept at a vintage sound makes one wonder if he‘s perhaps been hibernating for 40 years, waiting to take up Otis Redding’s mantle when called upon. Hall brings an obvious vitality and fresh enthusiasm to his genuinely soulful sound.

7. Sam Morrow
It isn’t surprising that Sam Morrow’s rugged, often ragged approach to contemporary country readily conjures up comparisons to Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, and Merle Haggard. He fancies himself the same sort of grizzled, no-nonsense troubadour whose insurgent sound puts him well outside the mainstream. On his striking sophomore set, There Is No Map, Morrow shows he's unafraid to pursue his own muse, even if it means stating exactly what's on his mind. “We’re all just fucking liars,” he defiantly declares on “Wasted Time.” Indeed, Morrow’s gruff vocals and steadfast delivery show obvious intent. “The same old bullshit don’t make your grass green,” he chides, and given his irascible perspective, it’s clear he isn’t interested in hearing any argument to the contrary.

6. Guy Marshall
Led by the husband-wife duo of Adam McNulty and Sarenna McNulty, Guy Marshall was named for McNulty’s uncle and inspired by the tales of Appalachia, classic country music, and family stories he heard while growing up. Guy Marshall first took form in August 2011, when the McNultys decided to join their voices in harmony and recruit a band — currently consisting of Eric Griffin (guitar), Zach Gilleran (drums), and Travis Bigwood (bass). Yet, while each of the members is a veteran of earlier ensembles, their combined efforts yield a sound that’s as vintage and archival as the classic sounds they so readily embrace.Their debut album, The Depression Blues, affirms that notion in its mournful combination of tattered Americana and down-home designs. It’s a remarkable first effort, one that recalls classic bands of a homespun variety, specifically those artists and outfits they cite as prime influences: Dylan, the Band, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Dwight Yoakam, George Jones, and Neil Young among them.

5. Ellis Hooks
Sounding like a potent combination of Garland Jeffries, Mick Jagger, and early Van Morrison at the helm of Them, Hooks purveys the sound of earthy, urban roots music, imbuing his music with a sound that’s ernest, energized, and irreverent. “Being rich and famous does not make you cool,” Hooks declares on “Live the Day,” one of several assertive and affirmative songs that make his recent outing, Needle in a Haystack, such a striking effort. He’s at his sassy best on tracks like “Life Is a Mofo,” a sizzling rocker that rails against any waste of time. “Now You Know” is unabashedly confessional: “Now you know why my first wife left me, I never let her hurt upset me,” he sings, casting his regrets with riveting resolve. At a time when too much of what passes for modern music is being hijacked by hype and gimmickry, Hooks proves that relevance can still resonate.

4. Falls
Falls’ story reads like the stuff of soap operas. The Australian duo of Simon Rudston-Brown and Melinda Kirwin met while the two were attending the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. They immediately clicked both personally and professionally prior to establishing a musical residency at a little hotel in Sydney and then heading to the United States to play SXSW. Just a few months after that, they signed a record deal with Verve Records and moved to L.A. to continue cultivating their career. All would seem to have been going smoothly had it not been for a turbulent love life that found them breaking up, making up, breaking up again, and then somehow finding the will to reconnect for the sake of their music. Since then, they've toured with the Lumineers and Monsters and Men, becoming staples on the festival circuit. “We wanted our sound to be bigger, darker, and more lush," says Ruston-Brown of their latest work. "That said, there are still a few songs on the album that are recorded the way the song was written, two voices and a guitar. Ultimately, we wanted to make a record that referenced our influences without imitating them and to try to create something that is uniquely us.” 

3. Hillary Bratton
Here’s another Hillary who definitely bears watching in 2016. Hillary Bratton displays the kind of verve and ambition that allows her to extend her credence considerably. On her new album, cleverly titled Tears on My Pillow but the Rest of the Bed’s OK, she collaborated with British songwriter/producer/guitarist Barry Reynolds, an artist best-known for his ongoing efforts with Marianne Faithfull. Tapping into his arched, melodramatic motif, she created a work of stunning distinction, an enticing collection of twilight songs sung cabaret-style and with utmost sophistication. Bratton presents herself as an urbane chanteuse, clearly attuned to the supper-club circuit, and indeed, her music conveys a timeless quality with a sophistication and savvy that brings to mind Marlene Dietrich and Nina Simone. Tearsis a provocative piece, one that’s uncommonly confident in its execution. If justice were properly served, this alone would make her a star.

2. Basia Bulat
Singer/songwriter Basia Bulat hasn’t garnered nearly enough notice on this side of our northern border, but it’s not because she’s not deserving. In her native Canada, she’s gained significant airplay and even had her debut album, Oh My Darling, shortlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize. Tall Tall Shadow, her third effort — and first to be accorded Stateside distribution — was also considered for that particular prize while nominated for a Juno Award as well. Though she possesses a voice best-suited for a forlorn folkie (think a mash-up of Kate Bush and Sandy Denny), Bulat is no willowy troubadour. Her deceptively delicate entreaties often give way to boisterous rhythms, an obvious reflection of bold, perhaps even brash, confidence. Still, despite occasional kudos from a few knowing critics and an extensive touring schedule that’s taken her as far afield as Australia, she’s yet to make the kind of inroads her easily engaging songs would seem to call for. That’s a shame, because Bulat has an ear for winsome melodies that we hope will attract a larger following in 2016.

1. Sean Kiely
Every so often, an artist comes along who’s capable of making an immediate impression despite a still-burgeoning career. Sadly, without the benefit of a big name or a bigger marketing machine, the public doesn’t always have the opportunity to find the music firsthand and the artist in question often goes unrecognized — until and unless someone happens to stumble upon it and share its strengths with others. Such is the case with New Jersey-based Sean Kiely, whose recent album Your Logo, My Logo is one of those sublime and unassuming efforts that sneaks up on you until you find it won’t let go. A follow-up to Kiely’s digital-only debut, Arch Envy (released under the name Sean-Sean), the new album is distinctly low-key, sounding something like early Avett Brothers, given its modest arrangements and bare-boned production. Kiely himself describes the songs as “an intimate collection of alternative folk songs examining lyrical themes of love, death, confusion, and awe within our modern American culture.” A distinctly intriguing effort, Your Logo, My Logo effectively established Kiely’s brand and ought to make him one to watch in the months to come.

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